Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, said Freud. But darlings, let me tell you – a snake is never just a snake. And certainly not in The Essex Serpent (Apple TV+), the new six part miniseries adapted by Anna Symon from Sarah Perry’s 2016 bestselling novel of the same name.
At the tail end of the Victorian era and recently liberated by her wealthy, abusive husband’s death from cancer, young widow Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) abandons London society and moves to Aldwinter on the edge of the Blackwater marshes to pursue a much more fulfilling life as an amateur paleontologist in comfortable clothes. With her she takes her devoted maidservant Martha (Hayley Squires) and her autistic (in modern day terms) son Frankie. Her husband’s former doctor, Luke Garrett (Frank Dillane), becomes a friend – and, in time, a contender at least in his eyes for her affections – and visits often.
When sightings of the legendary monster of the marshes begin, Cora theorises that it may be a living fossil – an icthyosaur-like being that escaped evolutionary pressures in the ancient wetlands – while the locals cleave to superstition and supernatural explanations for what they call “the Blackwater Beast”. Between the two stands the Rev Will Ransome (Tom Hiddleston), a man of God but also of the Enlightenment, keen to keep the growing fears and fancies of his flock under control and not call on divine or diabolic explanation unless all others have been exhausted. In this, he is not helped by his curate Matthew, a fire and brimstone type (whose name is surely meant to evoke the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, who began his career in Essex in the 17th century) who sees the serpent as a sign from God that urgent repentance of the villagers’ sins is needed.
As the friendship between Will, his ailing wife Stella (Clémence Poesy) and Cora grows, so does the attraction between Will and Cora – rather less convincingly on screen than in the book. Perhaps this is down to a lack of chemistry between the leads, or perhaps the miscasting of Hiddleston, who never manages to shed his innate air of suave confidence. It works well when playing a god of mischief amidst a plethora of equally towering egos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; less so when playing a Victorian vicar humble enough to admit doubts and wrestle with his conscience. Let alone fall in love with a woman cleverer than him, and spend time offering explanations that he is too honest to dismiss out of hand, however much they pain him. It gives his exchanges with Cora a condescending edge that is the death knell to the love and profound yearning that animated their relationship in the novel.
Danes, on the other hand, is magnificent as Cora – brusque, athletic, undisguisably intelligent and every inch a woman gradually being restored to life and self in the wake of her husband’s brutality. In fact, all the women are wonderful, from Squires, who brings vitality and conviction to what could be the slightly worthy part of the Socialist servant eager to bring about change, via Lily-Rose Aslandogdu and Dixie Egerickx as guilt-stricken youngsters who fear they summoned the beast, to Poesy who – as gentle, watchful Stella, is a heartbroken and heartbreaking revelation.
For all that, there is something strangely cold and sluggish about the adaptation of Perry’s book, which despite being a novel of ideas, was lush and vibrant, too. Although it excavated the links between myth, science and religion, it held up love in all its forms to the light as well. Platonic love, sexual love, requited and unrequited romantic love, love of a child, of a vocation, of discovery, of God. It was Wuthering Heights pulled into shape and given intellectual rigour without losing any of its sweeping gothic passion. But on screen, abundance has become austerity, suppressed feeling shades into inertia and the protagonists keep treading and retreading the same small patch of argumentative ground instead of sparking off each other and forging the greater and greater bond on which the story should turn.
Maybe I am simply too much a fan of the book. Symon’s take works perfectly well as a drama that delivers suitably sinuous twists and, under Clio Barnard’s direction, looks grimly fabulous, emerging out of the marsh mists that seem to promise that any malevolence is possible. And Danes grounds and gives a remarkable truth to the whole. But even allowing for the fact that screen adaptations rarely capture the full filigree of a literary novelist’s work (one reason why uncomplicated genre fiction generally fares better – there is more to add, less to lose), it feels like slightly too much has been lost in translation here.